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Hard Choices: AMD CPU update


Bulldozer and Zambezi begat Piledriver and Vishera. Say that three times before bed for a month and you might just remember AMD's latest chips. So it goes with silly CPU code names. Completely lost you? AMD has just tweaked its FX-branded PC processors. Out goes the AMD FX 8100 series, in comes the AMD FX 8300 series. But am I bovered? And should you care? Read on to find out.

The first thing to appreciate is that the revised Piledriver cores inside the 8300 series do not represent a dramatic new processor architecture. We're still talking 32nm SOI manufacturing tech and largely the same core design as existing Bulldozer FX processors. Indeed, you don't even get any extra cache memory. Has anything actually changed?

Most obvious is an uptick in clockspeed, model for model. The existing table topper is the eight-core 8150. It's nominally clocked at 3.6GHz and Turbos up to 4.2GHz. The new 8350 cranks things up to 4GHz and 4.2GHz.

Yup, that's no change in top Turbo frequency. But that's fine by me since you'll only get the full 4.2GHz with half or fewer of the cores fully loaded. In that context, the 400MHz increase in the basic, all-cores-enabled clockspeed is pretty useful.

It's a similar situation with the more affordable eight-core 8320. However, the six-core and quad-core models get a boost on both basic and Turbo frequencies, albeit more a more modest 200MHz across the board.

Proc-in-a-box: AMD has tweaked its FX chips

Elsewhere, AMD has polished up areas of the chip that I frankly struggle to care about and scarcely dare bore you with. Like more aggressive schedulers, improved branch prediction and replacing soft-edge flops with hard-edge flops where possible (if you don't ask, I won't tell), which helps with power consumption. Like I said, no big changes.

Thus it's really really clocks and pricing that are of interest. Regards the latter we're looking at pretty much the same pricing as the outgoing equivalents. Well, a quick scan of the usual online suspects suggest a small premium over the 8100 series, but hopefully that will cool off over the coming weeks.

Put it altogether and these new Piledriver chips are not about to blow Intel's de facto gaming king, the Core i5-3570K, off the map. Or even the old 2500K, for that matter. However, since last we covered CPU in depth, I've done a bit of soul searching and my attitude to AMD processors has shifted slightly.

To be absolutely clear, the Core i5 is still my pick. But I'm increasingly coming round to the idea of good-enough computing in some scenarios. In fact, you could argue that Intel is, too, since its own CPU upgrades have become increasingly incremental of late.

I've just taken the new Core i7-3970X for a spin and it's a pretty epic case of sand bagging. It still has two cores locked out despite the stupid £800 price tag. And it's barely any faster than the existing Core i7-3960X.

Meanwhile, back in meat of the mid-range CPU market, Intel has been stuck on four cores for several years. And that won't change when its new Haswell generation of CPUs arrive next year. For a while now, Intel has been main concerned with mobile when it comes to regular client type PCs rather than servers of workstations.

At the same time, Intel does a lot of things that rather get my gander. Like switching off HyperThreading in certain chips. Or locking out overclocking in most of its processors, switching CPU sockets at a drop of a hat and restricting software updates for its storage technology to the very latest chipsets.

HyperThreading: Sir Not Appearing In This CPU

Meanwhile, AMD offers straight forward, reliable hardware that may not be the fastest but makes sense at certain price points. Typically, you get fully unlocked chips and platforms with maximum backwards compatibility. You could argue AMD only does things this way because it's playing perennial catch up. But whatever the reason, it's a lot less antagonistic to its customers than Intel.

The problem for you fine fellows of RPS, of course, is that the application type that makes Intel's chips look best just so happens to be games. At the same time, 120Hz monitor availability is beginning to pick up. And I do love 120Hz, both in-game and on the desktop.

I've just had a play with the first mainstream monitor pitched primarily on its 120Hz prowess, for instance, the Iiyama Prolite G2773HS. It will, of course, work with NVIDIA's 3D Vision tat. But Iiyama has given it 120Hz chops mainly for the benefits that brings in 2D mode. So while PC game engines haven't exactly been busting boundaries of late in terms of CPU loads, if you want to make the most of that 120Hz panel, there's no getting round it. You need an Intel chip.

All of which means I must grudgingly maintain my Core i5 recommendation for gamers who play a lot of system-intensive titles. For everyone else, and that includes serious gamers who frequent, shall we say, a more cerebral and less visual games catalogue, I'm much more enthusiastic about the AMD option of late.

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